What's Next Health: Moving Into a World of Exponential Change

Jun 21, 2013, 8:00 AM, Posted by

Daniel Kraft Daniel Kraft

Each month, What’s Next Health talks with leading thinkers about the future of health and health care. Recently, we talked with Daniel Kraft, medicine and neuroscience chair at Singularity University and executive director of FutureMed, about the potential of exponential technologies to accelerate change. In this post, Senior Program Officer Paul Tarini reflects on Daniel's visit to the Foundation.

When we look at new technology, especially health care technology, we often ignore expense for the excitement of the new. More than one paper has been written citing new technology as an underlying driver of rising health care costs. 

Some of this is the result of the problems we want our technology to solve. We tend to lean toward developing and employing new technologies that are “heavy” interventions against a particular disease, and those technologies are more likely to be expensive.  

But when you start looking at technologies that are more about helping people live healthier lives, more behavioral, more wellness facing, these will likely be less expensive and their impact will be more exponential.

As a foundation whose mission is to improve the health and health care of all Americans—especially those most vulnerable among us—this idea of exponential and inexpensive technologies is ripe for exploration.

That’s why we were excited to have Dr. Daniel Kraft of Singularity University come to the Foundation and share his thinking with us. During his whirlwind tour of technology, two things stood out.

First was the notion that exponential technologies create change at a geometric pace. It is change that moves in long jumps, not a simple arithmetic acceleration.

Second was that this is more likely to happen when we stop looking at any one technology in isolation and instead look at how it can fit in with a whole suite of technologies. Then we can think about what they can do together. 

Look at your smartphone for inspiration. In isolation, it’s pretty good as a phone. But its real value is that it’s not just your phone; it's also your camera, your navigator, your watch, your music player, your bank, your newspaper and, increasingly, your heart monitor, your health records, your personal trainer, your dietician, and so on, and so on.

This kind of change is powerful. Fast-moving, convergent technologies can reframe problems in health care and open new paths to solutions.

We already see this at work in ways that are both exciting and inexpensive. For example, clinicians are using the Wii Balance Board and Microsoft Kinect device to understand movement disorders. Both are easily available, off-the-shelf technologies and are much less expensive than what had been the state of the art.

Daniel's visit also left me with the idea that change won't happen until it happens. We need to let the connections and contexts of emerging technologies play themselves out. When there are enough converging technologies, with enough penetration, we will get to the tipping point for transformative change.

For too long it has been too easy to become enamored with the latest and most expensive technology.  As we’ve seen in health care, this gets very expensive and, ultimately, is not sustainable. It would behoove us and our economy to put new technologies to a four-pronged test of Kraft's definition for exponential technology. 

  • Is it better than what we currently have?
  • Is it smaller (more portable)?
  • Is it faster?
  • Is it cheaper?

If something meets those four criteria, then it’s definitely worth pursuing. If it fails, then we need to take a very hard look at whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

When it comes to our health, perhaps it’s time to raise the bar and move beyond technology that excites us and into a world of exponential change.


This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.